Friday, July 8, 2016

Casablanca Still Casts its Classic Spell

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Critics and audiences still like to argue whether Casablanca is great art or merely great entertainment—let them, I say. Casablanca still captivates, no matter how you define the 1942 Warner Brothers’ war-time romance.

I was junior high age when I first watched Casablanca on the late show. From where I sat on my plaid sofa, in 1970s Upper Michigan, it was just another dated war time romance: lots of air sirens, police whistles, patriotism, sneering Nazis, and brave Bogie and Bergman clutching one another in the face of danger.

A few years later, I watched Casablanca again on Detroit TV 50’s Bill Kennedy at the Movies. By then, I was hooked on classic Hollywood and much more impressed. Kennedy was as proud as a peacock whenever the one-time actor got to show and chat about a true blue classic like Casablanca. By high school graduation, I felt like Bill had been my favorite teacher—in film.

Bill Kennedy, Detroit's movie host with the most
What set Casablanca apart from other exotic romances, especially the many cinema copycats to come, was the classic melodrama captured a time and place vital in American and world history. The U.S. had avoided getting into WWII, much like Rick/Bogart: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” 

However, Pearl Harbor changed all that on Dec. 7, 1941. Casablanca was filmed the following year, in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Many of the supporting cast members were ex-pats and refugees from all over Europe, who had already suffered in varying degrees from the bulldozing Nazi regime. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who played Rick’s head waiter—and memorably taught Barbara Stanwyck to flip pancakes in Christmas in Connecticut—lost three sisters to the concentration camps. Cast member Helmut Dantine spent time in a concentration camp before escaping to the U.S.

The plot of Casablanca is a cliché: Resistance fighters are trying to move through Casablanca and not get caught in the occupied city’s Nazi web. It’s a serviceable but straight-forward framework.

S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, showing Barbara Stanwyck how to flip
pancakes in "Christmas in Connecticut." Offscreen, Sakall
lost three sisters to the concentration camps.
The rest, however, is memorable. The studio system was at its peak and Warner Brothers’ best was rolled out for Casablanca: Michael Curtiz, the studio’s # 1 director; Hal Wallis, their most artistic producer; Humphrey Bogart, emerging as WB’s top actor; promising newcomer Ingrid Bergman, “borrowed” from David Selznick; the pick of the studio’s stock company of great character actors; a polished script with some of movies’ most memorable lines; cinematography that was both crisp and dreamlike, a dramatic Max Steiner score, and of course, the ultimate movie love song, As Time Goes By.

 Casablanca was a hit, making a leading man out of character actor/movie villain Humphrey Bogart, at age 43. The following year, his new status was confirmed when 19-year-old Lauren Bacall became Bogie’s baby, onscreen and off, in To Have and Have Not. Casablanca cemented Swedish star Ingrid Bergman’s status as a Hollywood leading lady. Three Oscars were to come later for other performances, yet Ilsa is still Bergman’s signature role.

Bogart and Bergman as Rick and Ilsa (two-thirds of a triangle) are genuinely moving because their performances are realistic, as well as romantic. Can you imagine if MGM had made this with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, with Gable’s bluster and Crawford’s posturing? They might have made Casablanca popular but not an enduring classic.

For those who think Casablanca is just high-grade Hollywood fluff, watch To Have and Have Not. WB was hoping lightning would strike twice. While it was just as well-made and entertaining as Casablanca, To Have has none of its emotional resonance or depth.
Casablanca became Hollywood’s greatest wartime romance, with its notion of sacrifice in an uncertain world. The film and its classic love theme became a touchstone of a time and place, but also as a symbol of true romance.

I recently watched Casablanca four decades later, on yet another plaid U.P. sofa. I was knocked out anew by the film’s genuine romanticism, since movies are typically filled with phony romance. Casablanca is fascinating because of its perfect counterpoints: Bergman’s dreamy close-ups to Bogart’s sharp tongue; the stars’ chemistry to a scene-stealing supporting cast; great dialogue to classic cinematic images; the booming Warners’ soundtrack to Wilson softly crooning As Time Goes By; and most of all, the genuinely romantic versus traditional happy ending.


1943: the beginning of a beautiful friendship between "Casablanca" and audiences.
Casablanca proves that, to lift a lyric, audiences will always welcome lovers, like Rick and Ilsa, no matter how much time goes by.

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